Music lovers in Charlotte have a rare opportunity this week to experience first-hand the music of Renaissance Venice.
Renaissance Venice in Scenes and Sounds, a unique collaboration between UNC Charlotte’s Music Department and Central Piedmont Community College’s Early Music Consort, will present a live concert of music by Gabrieli and other famed Venetian composers, performed on authentic Renaissance brass, woodwinds and strings.
The program will be repeated twice. A multi-media presentation during the concert will show Venice as revealed in paintings by Renaissance masters.
During the 16th century, Venice, Italy’s storied city of canals, was a vibrant crossroads of trade, politics and artistic creativity, particularly in music. The Basilica San Marco’s fanciful domes and glittering mosaics still attract tsunamis of tourists.
Four centuries ago, within the dark, mysterious recesses of the Basilica, Venetian composers launched a revolution that forever transformed the art of music.
Julianne Davidow, author of “Outer Beauty, Inner Joy: Contemplating the Soul of the Renaissance,” credits Franco-Flemish composer Adrian Willaert, who became San Marco’s maestro di cappella in 1527, with sparking this tipping point in Western musical history.
Bringing with him the Flemish tradition of polyphonic music for separate choirs, where the different choirs sing distinct but interwoven parts, Willaert went one step further. Since San Marco had two separate choir lofts, he physically split the choirs and added instruments.
The effect was tremendous, inspiring Gabrieli and other musicians who followed to even greater creativity and innovation. They are known to us today as the Venetian School.
In 2011, acoustic scientists Braxton Boren and Malcolm Longair created a computer model of San Marco as it existed during the heyday of Willaert and Gabrieli. They discovered that the best seats in the house were reserved for the Doge, Venice’s all-powerful, strongman ruler, and his retinue.
Thanks to raised galleries for musicians called pergoli, created by architect Jacopo Sansovino, the reverberation at the Doge’s seat was ideal for hearing polyphonic music at its best, according to Kim Krieger in Science Now, reporting on Boren and Longair’s findings.
In effect, the composers of San Marco invented the world’s first high-fidelity stereo sound.
At both performances in Charlotte, the musicians will divide into separate choirs to recreate the polyphonic tradition as it might have sounded in Basilica San Marco.
Royce Lumpkin, chair of UNC Charlotte’s Music Department, played a central role in making the concert possible.
During the summer, he managed to acquire a full set of Renaissance trombones, from the diminutive alto to the imposing bass, which has a slide so long the player needs a special handle to extend it to full length. Lumpkin also recruited a students to learn how to play these ancient instruments, under his tutelage. A transplanted Texan and renowned trombonist and tuba player, Lumpkin has taught at UNC Charlotte since 1998.
In the time of Shakespeare, these instruments were called sackbuts, or as Henry VIII spelled it, sagbutts. Target of countless Monty Python-eque snide comments, they have nothing to do with the human posterior. The name is derived from a Spanish or French term meaning “push/pull” or a pumping action, reminiscent of the way a musician moves a trombone slide to play a musical scale.
Members of UNC Charlotte’s Sackbut Quartet include Cassie Belk, junior music education major from Denver (alto sackbut); Sam Malitz, sophomore music education major from Charlotte (tenor sackbut); Will Gardner, freshman music education major from Lincolnton (tenor sackbut); and Marshall Sweet, senior music education major from Raleigh (bass sackbut). All are also modern trombonists.
But will Lumpkin get sacked if some politician complains that UNC Charlotte is squandering funds on, of all things, a set of sackbuts? He’s not worried:
“This is part of the training my trombonists need in performance practice,” Lumpkin says, “And these early trombones are fundamental to the long and distinguished history of the instrument.”
There is even a Charlotte connection. Musicians trained in Venice brought the polyphonic tradition north to Germany, where it influenced Bach and countless church musicians, among them the Moravians. They brought polyphonic music, along with trombones and cornettos, with them to Old Salem.
UNC Charlotte’s sackbuts will be joined by musicians from Central Piedmont Community College’s Early Music Consort, under the direction of Holly Maurer.
The Consort will add the sounds of viola da gamba, a Renaissance string instrument; harp, and recorders. The Charlotte Waites (of which I am a member) will also take part, on period reeds and brass, including dulcian (the ancestor of the bassoon) and cornetto.
The cornetto is a curved woodwind fingered like a recorder but sounded with a tiny mouthpiece like a trumpet. In Venice, it traditionally played the soprano part in the sackbut choir.
With such unique musical forces in place, these concerts promise to be as close to a musical time machine as you are likely to find in Charlotte, carrying listeners back to Renaissance Venice’s magnificent musical revolution, a timeless sound that still resonates today.
Lumpkin says he is open to adding a performance in the University City area, so a church or organization with a suitable venue can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 704-687-0255.